The S.T.A.R format: A guide to behavioural interview questions

August 8th, 2019, Recruitment, How to

Recruiters are increasingly being faced with the prospect of dealing with behavioural interview questions that are anything but straightforward. 

Questions that are behavioural-based tend to use a framework like S.T.A.R (Situation, Task, Action & Result) to help recruiters gauge whether a candidate handles certain scenarios.

The logical reason behind a STAR interview is to uncover whether a candidate’s past behaviour can predict and demonstrate how they would behave with future work-related situations. If they act in a certain way back then, the candidate most likely will act that way now and in the future. 

Asking a candidate the clichéd question of: “Tell me about yourself,” won’t get you anywhere near the underlining values, work ethic and candidate suitability for a role. Anyone can tell another person about an achieved accomplishment, but how would you know if this piece of information is credible? Is their example set from 10 years ago or did it occur recently? And how did they do it? 

Here’s what the CEO of HR Experts International, career coach and behavioural expert Vanessa Giannos has to say about it.

The behavioural expert’s view

When performed effectively and strategically, the S.T.A.R interview method and behavioural approach can result in achievable outcomes, but if poorly designed and planned, then the outcome may be skewed. 

Vanessa has been using the S.T.A.R model for the last 25 years in various countries, roles and industries. She noted that when you have a proper competency framework for the business in regards to cultural fit and behavioural fit, the S.T.A.R method “can be performed well.” 

This is partly due to the in-depth and advanced training of interview skills that is completed by the interviewers. Vanessa discovered that since using this method of training she has “always had less than 1% of turnover related to poor fit.” 

With her extensive experience using the S.T.A.R technique, she says that,

“The S.T.A.R model is an excellent tool but when it comes to behavioural questions, they tend to be poorly designed and not thought through.”

Despite the S.T.A.R method being a simple model to understand, Vanessa explains that putting it into practice can be “complex if you are to gain the most out of it.” 

Recruiters are led to believe that by starting the interview question with ‘tell me about a time,’ that’s all there is to behavioural interview questions. It’s more complicated than that.

Vanessa advises: “If you are to be successful, the behavioural questions need to be integrated with the role requirements, in particular, the behavioural skill set and competency level.” 

For example, a role that requires advanced influencing is different to a good communicator she explained. 

She noted that along with the behavioural skill set and competency level, “organisational culture-fit requirements,” are also important to ensure your success. A related example she shared is that a start-up is more likely to look for customer-centric, fast-paced, highly resilient, innovative, problem-solvers. 

The important step for any recruiter conducting an interview is to first get a clear idea on the role. 

Then comes the requirements, competencies, behaviours and skills required. 

You then form and develop your KPIs which would hopefully lead you to a successful placement. 

Lastly, Vanessa adds that you have to “think about the type of scenarios the role faces, and use that as the basis for your behavioural interview.”

To understand this in more depth Vanessa explains it like this: 

Let’s say you’re hiring a call centre representative, and from the initial job title you would presumably expect the applicant to have the key skill of customer service, which according to Vanessa “correlates to a customer focus competency.” 

As a business, its needs are to create “exceptional NPS, customer experience and to empower their reps to solve customer problems on the first time and every time,” she explained. 

In the call centre rep example, the hiring manager may ask ‘what does this look like in terms of behaviours’? Vanessa highlighted how “one such benchmark may clearly take ownership of the customer problem, or it may also be that the call centre deals with customer complaints.”  

In that case, Vanessa points out that instead of asking the basic ‘tell me about a time when you delivered good customer service’, you may want to explore this competency in-depth and instead ask, ‘tell me about a time when you faced what looked like an impossible customer problem and you were able to resolve it satisfactorily?’ 

“As you can see, context and knowing exactly what you are looking for is key to successful behavioural interviewing,” she added. 

Vanessa “absolutely” believes that the S.T.A.R method and behavioural interview approach is effective in shortlisting candidates, but remember that this approach is only effective when designed well and explored in detail. 

Her team uses behavioural guides to rank answers and overall performance of their candidates. This includes “their strengths, key contributions and development areas,” she said. 

Her team are also very clear and concise on the type of behavioural style the candidate is, as this will determine whether they are in fact the right fit for the role, team and business.  

Here are Vanessa’s pros and cons for behavioural interview questions and the S.T.A.R format.

Pros:

  • Validated methodology
  • Legally sound when implemented well
  • Ensures more diversity and inclusion
  • Ensures a more objective assessment of candidates
  • Ensures the right fit for role, team and culture
  • Recruiters learn in depth the type of person they are recruiting  
  • Candidates feel the process is a fair and quality approach
  • Candidates are afforded their opportunity to shine, showcase their expertise and share their experiences
  • It creates benchmarks for assessing high performers
  • Identifies possible problems early
  • Managers are able to develop very strong interviewing capabilities

Cons:

  • It’s best when customised to the business, team and role
  • Takes time and expertise to get it right

For more information contact Vanessa Giannos and HR Experts International at:

info@hr-xperts.com

Now, let’s break the S.T.A.R format down and look at what recruiters have to say on the technique.

STAR interview format

S = Situation

First, we have the Situation. This is the opening of their response for behavioural interview questions. It will ultimately set the situation out for you to understand and visualise the candidate’s initial problem they sought to resolve.

For example, you may ask the candidate this: “Tell me about a time you were faced with a deadline that you felt you weren’t going to meet?”

Their response could be: “When I was the product manager at company X I was in charge of running a team of 8 product developers. We had to launch a new product by the end of the month. As we were nearing our deadline the office was hit with the flu and several of our developers were on sick leave.”

As you can see, their response points out the what and the who. What their role and situation were, and who was involved.

T = Task

Next, will be the Task where it outlines the job the candidate had to face. What was the task the candidate had to complete? Who identified the problem and who was responsible?

The candidate should expand on to their previous response and highlight how they came to realise they were falling behind on their project. They could respond with, “I realised that we were short-staffed, so the task became to find a quick solution to hitting our deadline, and it was my responsibility to make that happen.” 

Be aware that some candidates may not be entirely familiar with behavioural interview questions and may stray away from certain points. Steer them back in by asking them to describe the task at hand and how they came to realise they were in a sticky situation.

A = Action

The Action step is how the candidate approached and dealt with the task. It encompasses the steps to improving and/or fixing the primary situation that was mentioned at the beginning of the S.T.A.R interview question.  

Adding on to the question, you could ask the candidate, “How did you resolve this situation and what was the process?” You’re essentially asking the candidate, ‘What did you do to fix the situation and how did you do it?’

Ideally, your candidate should take it step-by-step and run you through their thought process and how they came to a solution. This is also a great opportunity for the candidate to highlight their work-related skills such as time-management, leadership, productivity, teamwork, communication, etc. 

Recruitment consultant company, Michael Page says that this section “should be the most detailed.”  It can be the most important section, as it highlights the candidate’s suitability and resourcefulness. According to The University of Sydney, candidates should spend “approximately 80% of [their] time talking about actions, as this offers the most convincing evidence of [the candidate’s] skills.”

R = Result

The final step is the outcome achieved as a result of the candidate’s actions. Was their goal accomplished? Did they solve the situation and dismantle the task at hand? 

Matthew Doig, Director at Jindi Resources said that the results “may not always have been one that worked out,” but he respects honesty. He also appreciates “the described outcomes, which may not be ideal but really displayed the fortitude, resourcefulness and application of the candidate.” 

He pointed out the importance of this final step. It allows candidates to have “a chance to reflect on how this learning could be applied to the position they are [applying] for.”

At the end of the S.T.A.R interview, the candidate needs to bring their story to an end. Whether you’re expecting a happy ending is entirely dependant on the candidate’s experience and outcome, so be prepared.

“Getting people to describe a situation and go on from there, really gets them talking. It provides plenty of opportunities for me to clarify and discuss the way they went about dealing with the situation,” said Matthew.

He added that a “confident description of the situation [the candidate was] in” can be the start to a great answer.

Talent Acquisition Specialist at Employment Hero, Charlotte Shaw, found that candidates “are very good at telling me the action they took in a certain situation.”

Charlotte doesn’t necessarily use the same structure in her S.T.A.R interview process but commented, “I do look for glimpses in candidate answers. It’s a great method to help structure an answer, and it will quickly show their working style and what results they can achieve,” she said.

Infographic: JobAdder

Certain behaviour

According to a 2005 Sage Pub article from Dr Patricia B. Strasser, “behavioural-based interviewing is defined as an analysis of a candidate’s potential ability by examining the skills used in past job performance. The premise of behavioural interviewing is that past job performance is the best predictor of future performance.” As mentioned in the introduction, it’s the process of assessing the suitability of a candidate through behavioural responses and attributed results. 

Presumably when an interviewer asks close-ended questions “candidates can usually give interviewers the answers for which they are looking,” she said. With behavioural interview questions it “allows the [recruiter] to effectively determine the candidate’s knowledge, skills, and abilities,” she added. Ask the candidate to give details and a description of how they handled a certain situation. This can provide the recruiter insights into whether the candidate could be successful in the role and in the company.

With behavioural interview responses, candidates should provide verifiable, concrete evidence as to how they dealt with issues in the past. When a candidate provides you with this information, it can reveal their level of experience and ability to handle a similar or more advanced situation in your company. According to SHRM, behavioural interview questions tend to be “pointed, probing and specific.”

Director of The Agenda Consultancy and Manager at recruitment company McArthur, Brendan Allsopp, believes that the S.T.A.R interview and behavioural interview method, “serves a far greater purpose when you lead into a question using a specific example from [the candidates] background.”

Look into a candidate’s resume and work experience, and then base a question off that. It “shows that you as an interviewer or hiring manager have a genuine interest in their previous work and are not just ticking a box,” he said.

Here’s a behaviour interview question he shared. “I can see you were involved in this project on your resume with company X, I’m keen to learn more about it, the challenges and how that may or may not have benefited the company or client.”

The S.T.A.R effect

You may come to your own conclusions on the S.T.A.R interview method and whether it’s aligned to you and your organisation’s recruitment process. Whichever approach you choose to take, here are some of the positive and negative effects that the S.T.A.R interview method has created according to industry-leading professionals we spoke with.

Narmie Thambipillay, Managing Director at Arjan Consulting believes that the S.T.A.R interview method “is outdated.”

However, she has discovered S.T.A.R interviews to be “great as a framework for candidates that are nervous about interviews, as it helps them answer questions without waffling. It also ensures they manage to answer the question and get the full answer out,” she explained.

Charlotte from Employment Hero added to Narmie’s findings, where she also found S.T.A.R interviews to be a useful tool for anxious candidates. 

“If a candidate is nervous or finding the question hard, I may reword the question. ‘Do you have experience in coaching?’ to ‘tell me about a time when you coached another team member and what were the results?’” she said. “I’m also very fond of using [S.T.A.R] myself when I have gone to interviews, and have found it to be very effective,” she said. 

Brendan likes to use the S.T.A.R interview method “in principle and believe it forms a great foundation for interviewing.” We also have Matthew who agrees that the S.T.A.R interview method “works well.”

Rebecca Tromans, Recruitment Consultant at G2 Legal is “totally all about it,” and says “I always prep my candidates for this method.” 

Rebecca first started using the S.T.A.R interview method since she first started working in recruitment, and “[S.T.A.R] was what I was used to for my own interviews – which were a success!”

She’s also received positive feedback from HR teams and hiring managers on how candidates answered the questions in their interviews. “This is their expectation of candidates,” she explained.

Karine McAuliffe, Head of Talent Acquisition at law firm Gilbert + Tobin commented that “S.T.A.R might be a bit old fashioned, but it still serves a purpose in some situations.”

She explains that S.T.A.R can make it uncomfortable for candidates, therefore she prefers “getting to know the ‘real’ person.” She does this by putting them “at ease and seeing how they’re likely to behave in any normal day in the office,” she added.

The process 

Despite liking S.T.A.R interviews, Charlotte can still see the restrictions within the interview technique. “I think the S.T.A.R method is limited in the way that it assesses soft skills and weaknesses (or lack thereof) – I also find it quite outdated,” she said.

“Some [candidate’s] find it hard to think of examples under pressure. I am looking for a whole range of things such as a candidate’s professional background, work ethic, and personal qualities that they could bring to the role,” she added. Because of this, Charlotte uses a combination of S.T.A.R questions along with “questions about their CV and general probing into their personal background to identify soft skill capability,” she explained.

Charlotte’s process for more senior roles includes “aspects from top grading interview methods to better understand a person. For example, we use scorecards through our ATS platform for hiring managers to see. During the face-to-face stage, we question the candidate chronologically on how they ended up where they are today, from school to their future goals,” Charlotte explained. 

Her interview methods can alter depending on the role. For example, a sales role would need to encompass a drive for hunger, be used to working under pressure and “extremely self-driven,” she said. For this role, Charlotte would expect the candidate to align more with the S.T.A.R interview method, where they “present to me how they performed and whether they reached their targets. Whereas interviewing for a more introverted role, this may require more probing to find out more about their technical experience,” she explained.

Charlotte points out that she’s not trying to catch candidates out, but rather she is “genuinely trying to see what the person is like to work with.” Her organisation tries to avoid bias by bringing the candidate through “two to three different stages, with different people from the organisation – making sure the candidate is answering truthfully, and not just to impress us.”

Rebecca’s prepping process for a job interview involves letting the candidate know the following: “Who will be interviewing them? How the interview will be conducted? What sort of questions might they be asked, such as situational/behavioural questions?” Rebecca also guides her candidates on what to ask, and what to avoid asking.

“I then discuss the S.T.A.R interview method by telling them what it means. That if they answer using this method they will likely be telling HR or the hiring manager what they need to know, and ticking their boxes for the prospective role,” she explained. She also encourages her candidates to choose examples that are closely related to the job specification. 

S.T.A.R interview benefits

Every recruiter wants to know what they can do to be better and recruit better. Different approaches to interview methods are just one example. To witness those benefits and experience them is not only a step in the right direction but can bring huge potential and added value to your recruitment process.

Here are some of the benefits that S.T.A.R interviews can bring to your organisation. 

First, behavioural and S.T.A.R interview questions are based solely on the analysis of the role’s requirements and duties. Therefore, bias and uncertainty can be reduced due to the job-related questions that evaluate candidates.

Candidates could feel that “the interview process may increase the perception of fairness,” but the questions could help candidates in deciphering whether the job is realistic and attainable. 

Matthew has seen quite impressive results since using the S.T.A.R interview method. He’s found it to be “useful for dealing with candidates who have a lot of experience in the area being interviewed for,” he said. 

Aside from the above, what about making quality hires and improving your retention rate? We’re all aware of how much a bad hire can cost. According to TalentVine, the estimated cost of making a bad hire for a non-executive role in Australia ranges from 30-150% of their salary! In fact, 36% of companies make bad decisions because they don’t properly assess the candidate’s skills. Additionally, 31% of companies have placed candidates with false resumes.  

As a recruiter, your job is to find the best candidate for the role and to have that role filled. The S.T.A.R interview method and behavioural interview questions can help determine whether you’re making the right decision. Your gut may say ‘yes,’ but the process could ultimately result with a solid ‘no.’

S.T.A.R interviews can end up with factual information which can eliminate poor hiring decisions. S.T.A.R can also provide you with a framework and preparedness that other methods of interviewing may lack. Because S.T.A.R is an easy to remember acronym, you can always fall back on an efficient structure and method of interviewing. Here are more benefits of the S.T.A.R interview.

What do I ask?

Deciphering on what to ask and how to say it can seem confusing and overwhelming, especially if this is your first rodeo. Creating a plan and interview outline is always the best approach to take.

It’s important that you first assess the role’s requirements and duties and read your candidate’s resume or cover letter. Preferably both. Not only is it unimpressive to a candidate if you have only seen it first hand during the actual interview, it won’t allow you to prepare and have a game plan.

Don’t ask questions along the lines of, “what does hard work look like to you?” or “what do you know about this company?” Yes, they are good questions, but what value does it provide for your end goal? Anyone can research a company and memorise impressive statistics, but receiving detailed examples of work-related experiences is unquestionably the best source of insight on whether a candidate could be a good fit. 

Here are some sourced S.T.A.R behavioural interview questions with the related skill for you to try: 

Time management

  1. Tell me about a time you had to learn something you weren’t familiar with very quickly.
  2. Describe an occasion when you have faced conflicting deadlines?
  3. Can you describe a situation where you were required to do a number of things at the same time? What was the end result?
  4. When did you feel that you were unable to make a deadline? And how did you resolve the situation?
  5. You mentioned in your resume you were in charge of X project. How did you manage your time effectively?

Decision making

  1. Tell me about a time you made a major decision. How did you go about making that, and what was the outcome?
  2. Please give me an example of a time when you had to be quick in coming to a decision. What obstacles did you face, and how did you overcome them?
  3. Give me an example of when taking your time to make a decision paid off.
  4. Tell me about a time when you were forced to make an unpopular decision. 
  5. Give me an example of a time when you had to make a split-second decision. Walk me through the process.

Leadership potential

  1. Can you tell me about a time when you took on a leadership role? What have been some of the challenges you have faced as a leader?
  2. Tell me about a time when you had to go above and beyond in order to get a job done. 
  3. Give me an example of a time when you motivated others.
  4. Have you had to convince a team to work on a project they weren’t thrilled about? How did you do it?
  5. Describe a time when you anticipated potential problems and developed preventive measures.

Communication

  1. Tell me about a time you felt you weren’t being listened to, and how you made your presence or opinion known to your colleagues.
  2. Tell me about a situation in which you had to deal with a very upset customer, client or co-worker. 
  3. What is your typical way of dealing with conflict? Give me an example. 
  4. What do you do if you disagree with a coworker?
  5. Describe a situation where you were able to use persuasion and knowledge to convince someone to see and understand things your way.

Teamwork

  1. Describe a team situation where things didn’t work out well. Briefly tell me what happened, and what would you do differently next time?
  2. Tell me about a time when you put your needs aside to help a co-worker understand a task. How did you assist them, and what was the result? 
  3. Can you tell me about a situation where you and a co-worker were facing conflicts with projects and set responsibilities? How did you resolve the situation?
  4. How do you like working in a team? Can you describe to me a moment where you worked well with a team and a time you didn’t?
  5. Tell me about a time when you made a mistake that affected your team’s efforts. How did you rectify this?

Now, what are you supposed to listen out for in your candidate’s responses? This all comes back to the S.T.A.R interview acronym. Listen for the specific Situation, Task, Action verbs and the  Result.

How to prepare

Below are some advice and tips can assist in preparing any recruiter on how to set their S.T.A.R interview and deliver it successfully. It’s also useful to prepare your candidates for their interview. 

Charlotte mentioned that she doesn’t expect her candidates to stick to the S.T.A.R interview precisely. She advises that “candidates need to answer the question and give examples to back it up, as this shows how they have used this in real-life situations.” She adds that anyone can read off ‘generic strengths.’ Charlotte is more interested in “how they implement this to get the results we want and to help us achieve our company goals.” 

S.T.A.R interviews help define clear answers for the HR/hiring managers to follow, according to Rebecca. Her advice for recruiters is that S.T.A.R interviews prevent candidates speaking too much about one example. It “keeps the candidate’s thought process clear in their head. It gives them the opportunity prior to the interview to figure out some examples they might be able to use.”

Matthew encourages recruiters to still consider using the S.T.A.R interview method for candidates without much experience. He comments on his own experience here. “I would still try and encourage them to think of situations that could relate back to the job, but would also have some other questions ready if they were not able to do this,” he said. The key is to ensure that they “explain what S.T.A.R is at the start of the interview process. Candidates can then fully understand what [the recruiter] is trying to achieve with it,” he added. 

If you’re unaware what a good answer looks like, here’s what to listen out for. “Lots of animated details of the challenges and the way [the candidate] applied their own character, experience and skills to deal with it,” Matthew said. 

Vanessa advises recruiters that typing into Google ‘behavioural interview examples’ will not guarantee or enable you to recruit a candidate successfully. Instead she offers her advice for recruiters to “think critically about the business and the role, understand the culture and behavioural needs and job-specific scenarios,” she said. “Consistency and advanced interviewing skills are also critical for success,” she concluded. 

Here are some further tips for recruiters using the STAR interview method:

1. Prepare

Do this ahead of time. As mentioned prior, examine the candidate resume and cover letter and set up specific questions that are related to the role, and which also correlate with their experiences and skills. 

2. Take your time

Don’t rush and keep a steady pace. It’s important to pay attention and if needed ask the candidate to break it down for you to clearly visualise their story/example.

3. Be open-minded

Your candidate may not share with you an example that you were hoping for a number of reasons. Perhaps they lack experience, are nervous, have not prepared, can’t remember or didn’t understand the question. Remain open-minded and see the positives with each response, even if it wasn’t the response you were imagining.

4. Follow the STAR interview format

It’s simple and specific, but ultimately it will guide you. Have your notes in front of you if you lose track or stray off-topic. 

5. Take notes

Ever have those situations where a candidate mentions something brilliant and the moment they leave you immediately forget what they said? Write or type up notes and ask the candidate to repeat what they said if you need specific figures. This doesn’t mean that you can’t pay attention or don’t have an excellent memory. It tells the candidate you care and by keeping a record or document of what they said, it could help land them the role.  

6. Let your candidate take their time to respond

This could not only be your first time using the S.T.A.R interview method, but it could also be theirs. If you feel that your candidate is rushing their answer, advise them to take their time to think about their response. You want them to succeed, and with a bit of support and understanding they may well do so. 

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